By Angelique Rosa-Marín and Keiko Wilkins
Our last week in Lismore started off like any other. We had planned to finish up everything we needed to do in the lab, pack, and say goodbye to everyone who had helped us over the past two months. Monday and Tuesday of the week went as planned for us. However, the growing COVID-19 pandemic was causing a lot of anxiety. Every day, sometimes multiple times a day, new travel restrictions were being enforced in both the US and Australia. Some examples - our home-institutions closing, transitions to online courses, governments declaring self-quarantine to people traveling, among other things…plus dealing with the anxiety and concerns of our families back home and trying to remain calm. At some point, we were like, “What else could happen?”
Everything changed for us when we awoke on Wednesday, March 18th. The original plan was to take a flight from Ballina to Sydney so Angelique could make sure she was able to catch her early flight from Sydney back to the US on Friday morning. Keiko had planned to take this same flight to Sydney and remain there for a few days before traveling with her parents. Our flight was booked, our Airbnb was ready, our bags were packed, our ride to the airport was ready, but there was one small problem…Angelique’s flight back to the US was canceled. To add another layer of complexity, the airline had canceled all flights for the week and the earliest flight available would be the following week on March 27th.
Well, we were in a state of negation. We were not ready to leave Australia. There was so much to do and accomplish. Given that, we did not complain too much. However, an avalanche of consequences came from this flight cancellation.
We needed to check out from our house by Friday, March 20 at 10:00 AM by the latest. For this reason, we needed to search for another place to stay in less than 48 hr. Too many details needed to be taken into consideration. The new place needed to be close to campus, because we intended to use that extra week and work in the lab. Angelique needed to process her sediment samples, clean all her gear from fieldwork, and perform other lab duties. Keiko needed to complete her lab work and work on writing. The accommodations available at that moment were very far from campus or did not have Wi-Fi. Most places were at capacity or closed due to the coronavirus. We noticed that a lot of people were evacuating or refugees in hotels, motels, and Airbnbs to avoid travel due to the virus.
Finally, we woke up the next day and the first thing that we saw in the emails wasn’t something new about how the world was falling apart; it was good news. Dr. Naomi Wells had found that the university housing known as “the Village” was available and open for us to stay. We could move in the following day with no problems. Such amazing news! The Village was close to campus, had Wi-Fi, and had private bedrooms with only shared common spaces. It had all the amenities that we needed to be comfortable.
We went back home that afternoon and started packing and cleaning the house. We began getting everything ready for us to say goodbye to our 2-month stay and for the next morning when Dr. Wells would pick us up to move into the new home.
In the morning we were ready to go and accommodate ourselves in the new place. We went to the Village office to pick up our keys and drove to the new place to place all our stuff. When we arrived at the Village, Angelique received a call from her dad. He sounded worried and very serious. A level 4 travel advisory had been put into effect in the US starting immediately! It took us several minutes to process everything because this information meant that we needed to evacuate immediately or risk of being stuck in Australia. We talked about it and decided to contact Adina and explain our current situation. Adina had the same idea in mind and had sent us an email asking to talk as well. After our conversation, we concluded that we needed to leave Lismore at some point the same day and rearrange all of our plans in order to get home safe.
Adina modified, rescheduled and/or bought our flights within a matter of a couple of hours. Everyone (Keiko, Emmi, and Angelique) had different situations. For example, Angelique just needed to modify her reservation, Keiko needed to cancel her plans to travel throughout Australia and buy a flight back home. As Adina was on the phone with Delta trying to get us new flights, Delta canceled all flights from Australia back to the US. In addition, Qantas had laid off 30,000 of its employees and was canceling flights every minute. Both Angelique and Keiko were on Google Flights watching flights being canceled. Anxiety levels were high as we waited to find out if Adina was successful in getting us flights.
At this point in the middle of the afternoon, we were tired, hungry, and sweaty from moving in the Australian summer heat. We took a minute to make ourselves lunch from Keiko’s week of leftover food from the grocery store and decompress after the crazy morning. In the span of a few hours, we had moved out of our house, moved into our new home, packed all of our belongings, talked to our families, and rearranged our plans. Adina was able to get us a flight from Sydney to Hawaii the next day. This meant that we would have to move out of our dorm at the Village as soon as possible, say goodbye to everyone, finish up everything on campus, re-organize our bags, and find a ride to the airport in Gold Coast which was an hour away.
Dr. Wells agreed to help us again and drive us to the airport. With the help of Kenji, a Ph.D. student at the university, we were able to move out of the Village and finish everything we needed to in the lab. Our hour drive to Gold Coast went by quickly. Most of the time was spent talking about the crazy day that we were having. By the time we arrived, the sun was already setting.
Angelique and Keiko finally boarding to Sydney.
We arrived in Sydney early on the morning of March 21 (12:30 am). We were starving after not having eaten a real meal all day. We found an Uber and drove to our hotel. Upon arrival, we realized that it was meant to be. This hotel was the exact hotel that we had stopped to ask for directions during our very first few hours in Australia when we had arrived, January 22, for a layover in Sydney. The first place we had visited became the last place we would visit before flying home. We ordered food and ice cream to get us ready for bed and the long journey ahead of us. Given the craziness of the week, the chances of our flight being canceled later that day were high. We went to bed preparing for the worst but expecting the best.
In the morning, we decided to go out and have a nice last breakfast in Australia. After breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and ordered an Uber to the airport. We had a very interesting and funny conversation with the Uber driver. All international travel was officially canceled by then, and he was surprised that we were able to fly at that point. But we were trying to remain calm and positive on our way to the airport.
We got to the airport and everything seemed to be in order with our flight. However, the international wing was very packed. A lot of people were trying to get back home. During the check-in process, Angelique had an issue with her ticket. The reservation was visible in the airline system but there was no ticket attached to the reservation. Given that, Angelique needed to wait in a long line in order to obtain help from the ticketing counter. After an hour in line, Angelique passed the check-in process. It was a technical issue.
We boarded and 8 hours later we arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii. Angelique and Emmi had a 7-hour layover and Keiko had planned to stay for 2 days. After renting a car, we traveled to a beach and spent our last few hours with sea turtles before traveling home. Two flights later and Angelique was home. Angelique had a mix of feelings about being home in such a short time. In our mind, we were ready to spend an extra week in Australia, and in less than 72 hours we were back to the US.
Our time in Hawaii enjoying the beach, contemplating the beautiful Hawaiian green sea turtles and eating wonderful souffle pancakes.
Keiko spent the next few days exploring O’ahu. During this time, her flight home was canceled. In addition, O’ahu was beginning a lockdown so most businesses were going to close. Keiko arrived at the airport with plenty of time as large amounts of spring breakers were also returning back to the US. Three long flights later and all of us were officially home.
Timeline of journey surviving COVID-19.
At the End...
All of these days were very demanding in all aspects: physically and mentally. However, we look back and go over all the things that we managed and the situation itself - we could not feel prouder. More than that, we are very grateful for all the people that supported us throughout this process.
The most accurate example of Keiko and Angelique after surviving the challenges of COVID-19.